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Friday, March 25, 2011

 

Mumview: The Eagle

Brief overview

Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Eagle of the Ninth on the big screen. In 120 AD, the Ninth Cohort of the Roman legion disappears, totem eagle and all, in northern Britain. Twenty years later Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), son of the Ninth's lost and disgraced leader, returns to Britain to redeem his family's honour, accompanied only by Esca (Jamie Bell), British slave, son of a Brigantic chief and not entirely happy about being duty bound to serve a man whose nation killed his family and stole their lands. Sword fights ensue.


Does it work the way it should?

There are two basic ways to make a movie with ancient Romans in it. One is to take the grand myth and use it to tell stories that reflect contemporary ideas of heroism without much regard to cultural differences; the other is to take an interest in the Romans as a people with their own eccentric ethos and film them as foreigners. The latter, combined with plenty of sex and violence, made the HBO-BBC series Rome a fun watch, but The Eagle decides to take the former route: this is a story of derring-do in a setting that allows for big misty vistas and people talking about honour with a straight face.

Derring-do is fine, but you need to care about the characters and action, and The Eagle is rather thin on characterisation. Bell has a strong screen presence and can turn a tense silence or a meaningful glance with the best of them, but the script gives very little room for his character to develop. His set-up gives him potentially complex motivations, and there are moments when we're probably supposed to wonder whether he's doing something for real or faking it, but there just isn't the story space to let it breathe, which is rather a waste of a good actor.

Meanwhile, Tatum is ... well, he's okay, I guess, but he's actually difficult to review because his performance was so bland that it's hard to think of anything clever to say about it. Competent but unmemorable is about all there is to it, and this is a problem, because with the character of Esca so poorly fleshed by the script, and the bulk of the action revolving around those two characters wandering from incident to incident in a landscape full of generic people that they either have brief information exchanges with or stick swords into, we're left with a film that seems to find its natural space in the empty skies and unpeopled hills of Scotland, eventless and blank. As a film of adventure, honour and all those things that need cinematic excitement to make them work, there just isn't much there: it's two men doing stuff, but without enough plot, characterisation or chemistry between the two leads to give us much to get worked up about. I'm writing this review a few hours after seeing it, and already the two hours' worth of film has condensed to about half an hour's worth of things actually happening in my memory.

Which leaves us with what the film thinks it's trying to say - and it's here that this review moves beyond mild disconnection to genuine annoyance, because this is one of those films that has delusions of balance.

The casting gives us Americans as Romans and Brits as Britons. Well and good; the Romans were European so there would be a certain logic in giving them European accents, but America is the closest the contemporary world has to the Roman Empire, so there's a certain fit there. It may be that this casting was only done because when making films for an American audience, Hollywood tends to assume that only Americans are real people the viewers can be expected to care about ... but it creates an odd situation.

The Romans have invaded this country, taken land, put down uprisings with brutality, concerned with their honour and pride but not at all with the mysterious savages who occupy it. Sound familiar?

This could work, and for the first part of the film it looks as if it might. Esca points out that Rome hasn't exactly been good news for the people of Britain; there are hints that Marcus may have to learn that invading other people's countries isn't the best way to make friends and influence people. Yet the promise of complexity is never fulfilled: instead, we return to good old Roman values, the anti-Roman Britons obligingly show themselves to be subhuman barbarians with a last-minute atrocity, and it's all hooray for Roman courage and any Britons good enough to honour it. Those Arabs - oops, excuse me, Britons - are just weird people you don't have to care about unless they're pro-Amer - oops, sympathetic to Rome, or at least our favourite Romans. Ave atque vale to balance, now let's all salute.

So really, this film can fuck right off.


Ready for this?

The Eagle of the Ninth is not one of the Sutcliffe books I managed to finish in childhood (Warrior Scarlet is the one I remember best), but I do remember her interest in creating or inventing period detail, her willingness to be bleak and dramatic at once. This is a disappointing film for Sutcliffe readers. But it's a disappointing film for fans of Gladiator too: the plot is less lumpy, but the action far less exciting - and it certainly lacks the gleeful cynicism of Rome. Or, indeed, the classic grandeur of Spartacus. There have been good films set in the Roman Empire, but they need some kind of coherence, and The Eagle, while visually handsome, is just too short on detail to measure up. Roman films need a sense of richness, and The Eagle, while taking plenty of time to tell its story, has too little to say.


Life among the groundlings

The auditorium was fairly empty, and a biggish proportion of my time was taken up with a cheering game of Catch the Muslin, so things were peaceful.

Having a baby now old enough to think 'Why is that man hitting that other man?', I decided to play Censoring Mother and screen my child's eyes from the violent scenes. This called to my attention the fact that there were really quite a lot of violent scenes - but the thing was, they were all basically the same scene.

Kevin MacDonald's direction isn't gratuitously bloody. Rather than graphic detail, his fight scenes depend on speed and sound: boney crunches and fast-swinging frames that convey the disorientation and confusion of battle. It's a discreet way of doing it, especially considering how very often things end in a scrap, but with fight after fight done in the same glancing way, the action becomes repetitive rather than dramatic. It may indeed be hard to keep track of a battle when you're in it, but it becomes doubtful film-making after a while. Ancient Rome was not a squeamish culture, and most successful screen portrayals of it tend to embrace the hearty, heartless pleasure we imagine the average Roman took in seeing the blood splash. The Eagle is no gladiator display, though: it feels like a film that doesn't like all this violence it's gotten stuck having to show. It likes the lovely Scottish glens and trickling streams and rainy air; it likes the huddled physicality of warriors under canvas; it likes the moments of peace and community - the tasteful stuff. The result is that visually it's more on the horrors-of-war side, a film whose images tend to sympathise with the idea that having one's country invaded is a sad thing. The film's triumphal conclusion sits very oddly with its melancholic visuals.

The mothers and children in the audience all had an affectionate and playful morning. Up on the screen, though, the most dramatic war was between the direction and the script, and within the script itself as it swung from ambiguity to chest-thumping. I fear the audience was the casualty.


So, any good?

Bah.

Comments:
Nice review Kit, thanks :-)
 
Too bad. Because I did read The Eagle of the Ninth when I was young, and it sounds like we've got a totally different story here. (Yeah, I know, Hollywood changes things, who'd have thought it? Just don't ever, ever take the kid to Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

Anyway, I remember the book as being all about both sides finding out that the other one is human. Especially the Roman Marcus, in his eventual genuine friendship with Esca, and also in his relationship and eventual marriage with a British woman, a princess? priestess? (details are vague all these years later) of the tribe which had defeated his father's legion and was in turn defeated by the might of Rome. I gather that the movie left her out entirely.

So yeah, the book wasn't so much about heroic battles, as about finding some kind of common ground after the battles have been lost or won. It was about one of the many points in the long history of Britain, where the invader begins to become the native. There were, IIRC, several sequels in which Marcus and the lady's (can't remember her name) descendants appear as British-Romans and eventually just British. If the Romans are like the Americans, maybe it's in a Robert Frost kind of way:
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people...
But we were [Rome's], still colonials...


And now I want to go read the book again, and see if I'm remembering it rightly. But it sounds like I'm not missing anything by skipping this movie.

Word verification: undocons.
Clearly, conservatives who wish to reverse every social advance of the last century.
 
It was about one of the many points in the long history of Britain, where the invader begins to become the native.

Well, it's definitely not that story! It's more 'both sides come to see the other is human by agreeing to do what the dominant culture wants.' Y'know, that old heartwarming tale...
 
It's interesting to compare with Neil Marshall's Centurion. Which I quite liked because it didn't try to have it both ways. It's a Marshall film so it's going to be popcorn cinema and done well there's nothing wrong with that.

And so because Centurion was just interested in little more than varying degrees of badasses hancking at each other with swords, and coming down pretty strongly on the side of the natives it didn't leave a bad taste in my mouth. No guff about knowing your betters. Just that invasion sucks, war sucks, and hell hath no fury like a painted Pict woman crossed.

I like Bell quite a bit, it's a shame to see him treading water in stuff like this.
 
It's more 'both sides come to see the other is human by agreeing to do what the dominant culture wants.'

Since I haven't quoted Ogden Nash at you in a while:

Oh, I’ll be friends if you’ll be friends,
The foreigner tells the native,
And we’ll work together for our common ends
Like a preposition and a dative.
If our common ends seem mostly mine,
Why not, you ignorant foreigner?
And the native replies contrariwise;
And hence, my dears, the coroner.

Bah, indeed.
 
//It was about one of the many points in the long history of Britain, where the invader begins to become the native.//

That theme comes up in another Sutcliffe novel that I read and loved: Knight's Fee, which has an author's note about the ease of communication between Norman and Saxon characters in the story.

Kit: Warrior Scarlet? I went through a phase of being positively obsessed with Warrior Scarlet when I was a teenager. One of the cultures in the stuck-in-worldbuilding novel still shows very strong echoes of Drem's.
 
The Eagle of the Ninth is indeed the first in a series of four books, the last of which, Sword at Sunset, is an absolutely excellent retelling of the Arthur myth. I see Arthur as Artos the Bear now.

Warrior Scarlett was beautiful, but I think the Sutcliffe book which made the most impression on me was The Mark of the Horse Lord. The motif of the king who dies for his people, common in Sutcliffe, is at its most explicit there.

TRiG.
 
I've not read Knight's Fee. In fact, I'd not heard of it before. Must look it up.

At one time, Rosemary Sutcliffe was my favourite author.

TRiG.
 
Mine too. And I don't remember Knight's Fee either!

I'll probably still watch The Eagle, because I loved the book and will be forever curious if I don't. I wish whoever owns the rights would release the 1970s miniseries.
 
The Mark of the Horse Lord is my favorite of her books too, but Knight's Fee is close. Both have tragic events but both are about a real kind of honor -- not macho showing-off but integrity and loyalty. I dragged my husband to see the movie, which we both thought was only OK at best, but then he wanted to read the book ... and I was delighted when he came back with, "If only the movie had been a tenth as good as the book, how great it would have been!"
 
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